Arrival poster

“Arrival” Isn’t Just Another Sci-Fi Movie, It’s A Psychological Masterpiece

Arrival explained: The ultimate analysis of the themes, symbolism, and foreshadowing in “Arrival”

Paramount Pictures

A 2-hour-long psychological puzzle

The beauty of the “Arrival” movie is in how it unfolds. 

We’re not just being told a story, we’re active participants in unfolding it.

We, the viewers, gradually collect pieces of the story and build a narrative that clicks together in the end. The movie does not have to spell everything out. The makers give you the puzzle pieces and trust that you’ll put them together.

It’s so fascinating because we’re collecting them unknowingly. 

 The puzzle pieces are cleverly tucked in symbols and seemingly throw-away one-liners that you don’t really comprehend or even notice until you begin to put everything together, revealing the complete picture and coming to the realization along with the protagonist. 

For example, these lines click together once you understand the non-linear timeline. 

  • “If you want science, call your father.”
  • “When I told your daddy, he got really mad. He said I made the wrong choice.”
  • “Who is this child?”

Paramount Pictures

Alissa Wilkinson described this perfectly when writing for Vox: “Arrival is smartly crafted, shifting around like a Rubik’s cube in the hand of a savant, nothing quite making sense until all the pieces suddenly come together.”

Perception Play

Here’s the fun part. 

Arrival exhibits such masterful storytelling that despite the makers revealing the “twist” right at the beginning and continuing to foreshadow it throughout the movie, the reveal still makes us gasp.

As Sean Wagner-McGough wrote in his newsletter, “It’s a twist that entirely changes the context of the first 100 minutes of the film, but when the twist arrives, you don’t feel cheated. It feels organic. It lands, because you realize the movie hasn’t been leading you astray. It’s you that’s been reading the movie incorrectly. The signs have always been there, we’ve just been interpreting them wrong.”

The first few lines of the movie immediately give the reveal away, but it’s only through the slow-burning buildup of context that we truly understand what they mean. 

Paramount Pictures

“I used to think this was the beginning of your story. Memory is a strange thing. It does not work like I thought it did. We are so bound by time. By its order. I remember moments in the middle. But now I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings. There are days that define your story beyond your life. Like the day they arrived.”

Paramount Pictures

The viewer thinks in linear time and assumes if we’re shown something at the beginning of the movie, that’s where the story begins and all the flashbacks must be memories. 

By the end of it, both the protagonist and us, as the viewers, begin to perceive the timeline non-linearly, finally making sense of the story that’s simultaneously happening, has happened, and is yet to happen. 

“Arrival” is a movie about perception that literally plays with your perception.


One of the many layers in this movie highlights the role of communication and the makers emphasize it further with strategic wordplay.

In one scene, the aliens tell the Russians, “There is no time.” In a military camp with a constant threat of war, it’s easy to interpret this as a signal for urgency. But the aliens literally said there is no time, meaning time does not exist. There is no linear timeline consisting of past, present, and future — all is one.

Paramount Pictures

Another brilliantly woven thread: The aliens keep talking about using a weapon, which naturally scares everyone. But remember what Ian read out when he first met Louise? “Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.

Louise herself referred to language as a weapon!

To make it more interesting, the line literally says “weapon drawn.” Louise communicates with the aliens by drawing the weapon (language) on the barrier!

Paramount Pictures


Keeping in line with the movie’s “loops” theme, one of the most obvious palindromes is the daughter’s name — Hannah. 

But did you realize the movie itself is a loop?

We start with the end of the movie (the daughter’s death) and end with the beginning (Louise and Ian coming together). In fact, the movie’s title also appears at the end, making it a perfect loop. 

To make it more interesting, the movie begins with Louise holding the baby and ends with a similar shot. 

Paramount Pictures

A background full of clues

Imagine watching a mystery movie where everything could be a clue. From the walls and random objects in a house to the jewelry a character is wearing. 

That’s one of the reasons Arrival feels so well-crafted. In a Vanity Fair interview, the set designers revealed how everything aligns with the movie’s theme. 

Here are a few examples:

The lamp

Here’s a shot that appears repeatedly throughout the movie.

Paramount Pictures

Notice the lamp hanging from the ceiling? It looks like the spaceship! 

Paramount Pictures

The hospital corridor

In the first few minutes of the movie, Louise walks through a hospital corridor after the death of her daughter. Initially, we assume this is the beginning of the story and later learn it’s actually the end. 

The makers demonstrated this beautifully by using a circular hospital corridor.

Paramount Pictures

The white screen

Did you notice all three settings of the film: Louise’s house, classroom, and the alien spaceship use a giant white screen?

“…at her house, with the big glass window overlooking the hazy lake. In her classroom, you have her whiteboard. And the chamber is divided by the big glass window…” production designer Patrice Vermette said in the interview. 

Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

The textured walls

“At the beginning of the movie when we are first introduced to Louise’s house, the camera pans down from the ceiling to the windows and you see these textured lines in the ceiling. You also see those lines in the texture of the wall of the ship and those lines in the corridor of the university, when the camera pans down from the ceiling to introduce both settings,” Vermette said in the interview. 

Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Clues in cinematography 

The brilliance of the set design is amplified through genius cinematography that beautifully highlights the movie’s themes. 

The idea of big vs small

In his newsletter, Sean Wagner-McGough points out how the cinematography conveys the idea of big vs small by showing Louise’s tiny human hand in contrast to the giant alien hand.

Paramount Pictures

We see this comparison again when Louise stands in front of the aliens. 

Paramount Pictures

Language in Louise’s head

Another brilliant observation from Sean Wagner-McGough shows how the cinematographers used framing to convey the language entering Louise’s head. 

Paramount Pictures

4 responses to ““Arrival” Isn’t Just Another Sci-Fi Movie, It’s A Psychological Masterpiece”

  1. Avatar

    You should take part in a contest for one of the greatest blogs on the web. I most certainly will recommend this website!

    1. Sakshi Udavant Avatar

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read and appreciate my work. It motivates me to share more of my creative projects 🙂 Can I ask how you came across this site?

  2. […] “Arrival” Isn’t Just Another Sci-Fi Movie, It’s A Psychological Masterpiece […]

  3. […] All The Themes In Agust D’s “D-2” Mixtape Analyzed “Agust D” Mixtape Analyzed: The Mental Health Taboo What Is Music Really? “Arrival” Isn’t Just Another Sci-Fi Movie, It’s A Psychological Masterpiece […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *